Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
I was at a parish meeting this week, and as usual, the meeting began by reading the Sunday Gospel reading. After it was read, for about a minute, there was silence. It is as if we were all tongue-tied. It took a few quite moments to break the silence, but there still was this sense that we simply do not know what to do with Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. Unlike Matthew’s version, Luke creates a stark line of separation between the blessedness of the poor and the woe of the rich. How shall we understand Luke’s Beatitudes?
Here are my three points.
- Who are the poor? Identifying the poor in the beatitudes is not always an easy task. While Matthew qualifies the poor as the “poor in spirit,” Luke simply says, “Blessed are the poor!” Who are the poor? Who was Jesus addressing? Today’s first reading helps us understand this. Jeremiah says, “Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the LORD.” On the contrary, he says, “Blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose hope is the LORD.” In other words, the difference between the rich and the poor is the intensity of the trust that they are able to place in God. You might argue that the rich and the poor trust equally in the Lord. While this is true, there is a difference in the intensity of the trust. Rich people trust in God, but then, they have their wealth, their resources, their friends and their own abilities to rely on. The Biblical poor person has nothing and no one to rely on but the Lord. The poor in the gospels are those who are shut out from the mainstream of society. The poor are those on the periphery, the disenfranchised, the neglected, the rejected, the powerless. They have nobody! In the gospel, the Beatitudes, and in Jesus teachings, “the poor” and the “poor in spirit” are those whose ONLY help is the Lord.
- Why “Woe to you who are rich?” Luke’s Gospel is very critical of the rich. As Jesus would say, “How hard it for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God” (Lk 18:24). “Why? Let me give Luke’s reasons.
- First, because the rich rely on themselves and their rather than on God. Remember the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:16-21? The man had a rich harvest. So he built big barns and set himself up for life. But that night his soul was required of him. The moral of the parable was simple: “Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.”
- Second, because many rich people refuse to use their wealth to help the poor. Remember the rich young man who came and knelt before Jesus asking the question, “What must I do to enter eternal life, in Luke 18:18-30? When Jesus asked him to sell and he has and give to the poor, he sent away sad. He could not fulfil Jesus demand.
- Third, because wealth blinds those who own it. Remember the rich man at whose gates lay the poor man Lazarus, in Luke 16:19-31? For the rich man, Lazarus was non-existent. Later, it was Lazarus who enjoyed heaven, while the rich man suffered the eternal flames.
- Fourth, because sometimes the rich become rich by exploiting the poor or exploiting a system that exploits the poor. Remember Zacchaeus in 19:1-10? He was a tax collector and he became rich by exploiting the system and by extorting money from the poor.
There is good news in all of this. Even you find yourself with riches, you need not be the kind of rich person to whom Jesus says, “Woe!”
- What is the blessedness of poverty? The blessedness of the poor lies in the promise Jesus makes to them – the kingdom of heaven is theirs in this life and the next. The blessedness of the poor lies in this, that God belongs to them and they belong to God. This promise was fulfilled in Jesus life-time. In the gospel, Jesus belonged to the poor, the outcast, those who were rejected by society. In fact, he who was rich, became poor so that the poor could become rich. What about the rich? Could they be blessed too? Could they too enter the kingdom? Luke’s answer is clear. Sure, they can! But they must live as if they are poor. Like Zacchaeus, if they have wronged anyone, they must make it right. They must care for the poor not out of their abundance, but in Christ like generosity. I have two examples for you. The first is Reuben Ramirez in El Paso. Reuben single-handedly runs Annunciation House. It is a place where immigrants who when they first arrive or are released by authorities, have nobody, nothing, and nowhere to go. I have visited Annunciation House. Reuben has given up everything and has devoted his life to care for the poorest of the poor. The second story is of an anonymous person, who during the recent brutal cold created by the Polar Vortex, came to the aid of the homeless in Chicago. The officials in Chicago had approached the Salvation Army to see if they would be able to help the homeless in the city. That is when an anonymous donor came forward and made it possible for seventy homeless people to stay in various hotels in the city for seven days. In other words, whether we are rich or poor, we have one model to follow, Jesus. He was rich but he became poor. He became poor and the kingdom belongs to him.
Blessedness or woe – the choice is ours!
- Satish Joseph